Today’s reading is on a slightly awkward topic.
We Brits don’t really like confrontation. So a Bible reading where Simon Peter exposes false teachers within the church is slightly uncomfortable to listen to.
Maybe you’re thinking: Can’t we just focus on the good there is to do here in Kemsing? This all feels so negative!
Simon Peter clearly thinks he can’t just ignore this. We’re working our way through his little letter during the autumn, and if you’ve been with us you’ll know there are two reasons why he writes. Number 1: He knows he will die. Soon, the last witnesses who saw and heard Jesus on earth will be gone. And number 2: False teaching is spreading in the church. So he needs to make sure that true Christianity does not get lost after he’s gone.
So the false teachers cast a shadow across the whole letter, and chapter 2 is given over to them entirely.
If it matters this much to Peter, it needs to matter to us as well.
Last time, we looked at the first half of this chapter. The reason false teaching matters is that the real Jesus is just so wonderful. He gives us life and light.
Chapter 1, verses 3 and 4, Jesus brings life. He makes us fully alive, changes us to be like God, and gives us a future free of corruption and decay.
Chapter 1, verses 19 to 21, Jesus brings us light. We need to see where we’re going in a dark world. We don’t have to guess. God has spoken in the person of Jesus, and the Bible contains God’s own words.
In Jesus we have life and light. How tragic to follow a false guide, down a false path, and to miss the wonderful real Jesus.
Today we move into the second half of chapter 2, and Peter paints a very clear picture of these false teachers. He shows us how appealing they are. He shows us how easily we could fall for them. But he also shows how disastrously empty and wrong they are.
Attractive. And disastrous. It’s a terrifyingly dangerous combination, so we need to be warned.
Here’s where we’re going this morning: There are two paragraphs in our reading. They each make a slightly different point, so we’ll look at each in turn. Then I’ll draw together what Peter wants us to know about false teachers – in his day and in our own, so we’re prepared not to fall into danger.
False Teachers: Among God’s People, but Don’t Belong
First, verses 13 to 16: The false teachers They’re among God’s people, but they don’t belong. Among God’s people, but they don’t belong.
The false teachers are not a problem “out there”. Peter says they’re “in here”. Verse 13, he says “they feast with you”. When these Christians share the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, the false teachers are there, taking part. When they have a bring and share lunch, or a barbeque, they’re joining in, bringing a pudding, and enjoying a plateful with everybody else.
The teachers Peter writes about are not strangers from far away. They’re part of the local church fellowship. Part of the family. And they join in church activities with impunity.
So that they’re hard to spot. Your ordinary Christian would be thinking: “We know this person. They’re alright. How could what they say possibly be wrong?”
But it is. They’re among God’s people, but they don’t belong.
They don’t belong in the present.
Look at how they’re described. “Their idea of pleasure is to carouse in broad daylight. They are blots and blemishes, revelling in their pleasures while they feast with you. With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed – an accursed brood!”
They live for pleasure.
Eyes full of adultery. Have you ever seen the children’s cartoons where the characters eyes just become dollar signs, or whatever it is. It’s a caricature way of saying that the character is looking at the situation, and all they see is the chance to earn some money. Well these guys are like that; they’re going through life, and other people are just potential sexual meat.
They’re experts in greed, Peter says. The word “expert” is the word for a work-out at the gym. They’ve trained, and they’ve honed the art of getting the most out of any situation. So in fact it’s dollar signs, pound signs, as well as adultery. That’s part of the reason Peter mentions Balaam. You’ll find him in Numbers chapters 22 to 24. As one writer put him, he was the prophet who worked for profit. He led God’s people astray, because the chance to be paid overrode his principles.
Greed. Adultery. And an insatiable appetite for sin. Verse 14: “They never stop sinning”. They’ve never had enough. There are always fresh ways to break God’s laws.
You see they hang out with God’s people. But their lifestyles are not those of God’s people. To be sure, none of us are perfect. But a Christian is someone who knows God’s forgiveness for their imperfections, and is slowly being transformed to become more and more like the Lord Jesus.
These teachers have no intention of being transformed at all. They simply conform to the prevailing culture. Appetites and desires are to be indulged, not channelled and restrained. If it feels good, do it. If there’s consent, there’s no problem.
They’re among God’s people, but they don’t belong.
They don’t belong in the present, and they won’t belong in the future either.
Verse 13: “They will be paid back with harm for the harm they have done”. Verse 14 says that they seduce the unstable. There’s more of that in the second paragraph too. They’re enticing young Christians away from the faith. They’re causing havoc, doing harm, to God’s precious children, leading people down the wrong path.
It hasn’t gone unnoticed. God’s seen the harm they’ve done, and when Jesus returns they’ll be paid back, with harm. They’d deny this, of course. One of the key doctrines the false teachers deny is the second coming of Jesus. They think there will be no judgement. But they’ll find out how wrong they were.
The Balaam story makes the same point. The story of Balaam is an interesting one. Balaam the prophet is paid to curse God’s people. But he’s stopped in his tracks, by his own donkey as it happens. The point is that those who would harm God’s people never succeed in the long term.
When Jesus returns, they’ll be paid back, and God’s people will be safe.
They’re among God’s people, but they don’t belong.
Because you find them among God’s people, they’re very hard to spot. It’s hard to believe they’re a problem. But they are. That’s why Peter describes them in verse 13 as “blots and blemishes”. In Old Testament times, if you offered a sacrifice, it had to be without blemish.
You can sometimes buy a plate, a cup, a jug for cheaper if it’s marked as a second. The factory spotted something on it that spoils it. It’s not the perfect item they want to sell at full price.
These false teachers are the blemishes on this Christian church. There they are, they don’t belong, but they’re fully part of the Christian fellowship. They make that church not the church God wants it to be. They’re among God’s people, but they don’t belong.
False Teachers: Promise Freedom, but Don’t Deliver
Now let’s look at the second paragraph, verses 17 to 22. The false teachers: They promise freedom, but they don’t deliver. Promise freedom, but they don’t deliver.
That’s their cry: “Freedom!”. Verse 19: “They promise them freedom”. Freedom to live how you want. Freedom to indulge your feelings. Freedom to have nobody else tell you what to do. Verse 18: They appeal “to the lustful desires of the flesh”.
They offer a Christianity where you can do anything if it feels right, if it feels loving. They offer a Christianity without awkward laws and rules to curb your freedom. “Freedom!”
So you can see the appeal. The culture back then was very sexually liberated. Someone becoming a Christian would have been used to going to pagan temples, where prostitution was part of the worship.
Then they become a Christian. How liberating it would be to meet Christians who tell you that you don’t need to stop doing any of those things.
And you can see the appeal in our own culture, too. Our culture is very sexually liberated. The idea that sex is for marriage between one man and one woman, and that this is for life, seems very old fashioned to most people in Britain. Then you become a Christian, and discover that this old fashioned stuff is actually the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, and it’s for all times and cultures.
How liberating it is to meet Christians who tell you that you don’t need to be sold old fashioned. You don’t need to be tied down by out of date rules and customs. You can do as you please, provided there’s consent on all sides.
You can see the appeal.
Which is what verse 18 says: “For they mouth empty, boastful words and, by appealing to the lustful desires of the flesh, they entice people who are just escaping from those who live in error. They promise them freedom.”
They promise freedom. They promise freedom, but they don’t deliver.
Again, start with the present. They don’t deliver in the present. Verse 18: “They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity – for ‘people are slaves to whatever has mastered them.’”
They can’t deliver on the freedom they promise because they don’t have it themselves. They may not be tied down by rules from on high, but they have a master all the same. They are unable to stop, unable to escape, the depraved ways in which they live. Which means they’re not free at all.
And they don’t deliver in the future, either. Verses 20 and 21 paint an alarming picture. These teachers are people who know all about Jesus Christ. They’re baptised Christians. They’ve signed up to follow him. But having done that, they’ve turned back to their previous way of life. They don’t live as Christians. Which means they’re in deep trouble on the day of judgement.
“If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and are overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them.”
When France was liberated at the end of the Second World War, the German occupiers were dealt with. The ordinary French resented living under occupation for all those years. But you know who got the harshest treatment? The French people who had collaborated with the Germans, the collabo.
To be on the other side is to be in trouble when justice is finally done. But it’s far worse to be on the same side, but to have played the role of traitor.
That’s why these false teachers are in a worse place than they were at the beginning. That’s why it would have been better not to have known God’s ways than to have known them and turned back.
Peter ends with two vivid pictures to describe them. They’re like a dog, a scavenger, that returns to eat up its own sick. They’re like a pig that has got clean and immediately goes to roll in its own muck. They’re not nice pictures. They’re not meant to be.
They promise freedom. But they don’t deliver – now or in the future.
Which means their promise, that’s so enticing, is totally empty.
So we’re back to the start of the paragraph. Verse 17: “These people are springs without water and mists driven by a storm.”
Peter lived in a very hot, dry part of the world. Access to water was one of the most important things for every community. If you were travelling through hot, dry deserts, you needed to find fresh springs where you could be refreshed, and fill the animal skins that were the predecessors of our water bottles.
So you set out, and you know the usual watering holes. You have just enough water to reach the first one. You’re gasping for the refreshing, cool water that’s to be found there. But when you get there, the spring is dry. There is no water. You go away thirsty, your thirst unsatisfied. So much promise, but nothing delivered.
They promise freedom, but they don’t deliver.
Drawing Threads Together
Now we’ve looked at these two paragraphs, let me draw the various threads together to give us a picture of what Peter’s told us.
You see the appeal of these teachers. They’re hard to spot, because they’re to be found among us. They’re people we know, love and respect.
They have immense appeal. They promise us pleasure. You can be a Christian and still do whatever you please, provided it doesn’t hurt anyone else. They promise us freedom. Freedom from rules to tie us down. Freedom from old fashioned traditions. They promise us freedom from judgement. We’ll never be held to account for what we do.
Anyone who says this will be very popular. The prophet Micah, in the Old Testament, said this: “If a liar and deceiver comes and says, ‘I will prophesy for you plenty of wine and beer,’ that would be just the prophet for this people!”
Massive appeal, especially to the young Christian, who doesn’t know their Bible very well yet, and comes from a culture that thrives on pleasure, and freedom.
They’d be easily led astray.
But what a disaster that would be. These teachers cannot deliver.
Start with their motives. Pleasure and profit. Find a theology that fits with the pleasures they want to indulge. And then, like Balaam, teach whatever pays the bills.
And they cannot deliver. They aren’t free themselves, so they can’t give anyone else freedom. Instead they do immense damage, dragging young Christians away from having Jesus transform their lives. God will pay them back for this, but the damage will be done. It’s bad enough for them to turn up on judgement day in the category of traitor. But the Christians who follow them will be in the same category.
It’s tempting to apologise for a heavy topic.
But Peter doesn’t apologise, so neither should I. We work our way through books of the Bible, one chunk at a time. If God thinks a topic is important, we look at it. False teaching isn’t a topic that comes up every week, but it does come up.
And we’ve seen how important it is that we do look at this. There’s a genuine danger here. That we are taken in, by people we trust, saying something we would love to be true. But who are actually giving us a distortion of true Christianity, that leads people to hell.
And the reason this is so sad is because the real thing is so wonderful. 2 Peter consistently calls Jesus our Lord and Saviour.
He’s our Lord, because he’s the one who has the right to tell us how to live. He wants to take control of our lives, and lead us in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. As the old prayer book says, “his service is perfect freedom”.
And he’s our Saviour, because he brings us freedom and forgiveness and sets us on a certain path to heaven, all as a complete free gift.
Be on your guard. Don’t be taken in by cheap imitations, no matter how good they sound. Put your trust in the Lord Jesus, and let him bless you, restore you, and lead and guide you through life.
Chapter 1, verse 10: “For if you do these things, you will never stumble, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ”.